Drugs and Alcohol: Talk to Your Child Early

Whether or not your child has hereditary and environmental risk factors, experts say talk early and often about substance use.

How early is too early to talk with your child about drugs and alcohol? The answer might surprise you. Rather than waiting until your child is in high school, seize the opportunity soon after your child starts school, suggests Kristie Schmiege, Director of Substance Use Disorder Services with Oakland Community Health Network (OCHN).

“What the experts indicate is that all children should be exposed to this important information, and the earlier, the better,” Schmiege says. The average age children start using substances is about 12, and they’re exposed even earlier — around 8 or 9 years old. “As a result, experts suggest we start talking about drinking, smoking, and other drugs between 5 and 7.”

It doesn’t have to be a full presentation, Schmiege says. Keep the conversation age appropriate. You’re laying a foundation for future discussions and want your child to feel comfortable coming to you throughout the years. “This is a time for setting family values and parameters, giving information and being willing to answer questions,” she says.

And take heart that your words have weight. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than 80% of kids 10 to 18 say their parents are the leading influence on their decision whether or not to drink alcohol.

Saying nothing isn’t an option because it could send an unintended message. “If parents don’t address the issue, they are missing the opportunity to expose their children to their rules and values, and their kids may be more likely to experiment and listen to friends and be exposed to peer pressure,” Schmiege explains.

‘Runs in the family?’

The more you recognize family members’ struggles with alcohol or substance use disorders, the more worried you may be about your own children. The issue is complex and involves heredity and environmental risk factors. While these factors don’t change recommendations about having conversations with your child early and often, you may need to be prepared to answer your child’s questions.

“Scientists don’t know exactly how the risk factors are passed down through genes in families, but they do know that they are. The fact that family members have problems with substance use doesn’t mean your child will have these same challenges, but it might mean they have an increased risk,” Schmiege says. “That’s certainly something to think about when friends offer them alcohol or other drugs.”

Data shows that early drinking is a known risk factor for developing alcoholism and drinking-related impairment later — so keep a watchful eye. “From research, one key known factor is when adolescents receive little parental monitoring, this creates an environment that allows greater opportunities to express those genetic predispositions,” she says.

If you suspect your child is using

Stay calm, and don’t blame yourself or your child, Schmiege says. “Remember that substance use disorders and mental health issues are treatable. The most important thing is to act now to find the best available services,” she adds. “Show compassion and keep the channel of communication open. Try to take care of yourself and seek support if you need it.”

Content sponsored by OCHN. OCHN leads a provider service network that assists approximately 23,000 Oakland County citizens at more than 300 service sites across the county. People who receive public mental health services through OCHN’s provider network include those who have an intellectual or developmental disability, mental health challenge or substance use disorder. The majority of these individuals have Medicaid insurance coverage.

OCHN’s goal is to ensure these individuals are aware of and have access to services and supports that will improve their health and quality of life, as well as ensure their engagement in full community participation. Its mission to “inspire hope, empower people and strengthen communities” reflects an unyielding belief in a “Valuable System for Valued People.”

Programs and supports provided by OCHN’s service network are available at oaklandchn.org.

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